Everything I was taught about preaching in seminary was backward.
Between undergraduate school and seminary, I took eight preaching courses. Each of them was taught by amazing people who loved God and poured themselves into me. For them, I am grateful beyond words.
The problem, looking back, is that the classes focused on the wrong thing: Their goal was to make me a better speaker.
What these professors failed to realize (primarily because they didn’t have to preach every week themselves) was that most senior pastors do not struggle with speaking. They struggle with writing, and since a sermon is nothing more than a written document delivered orally, it is no coincidence that every senior pastor I begin coaching is frustrated with their process for preaching.
Here are a few secrets that writers know that most preachers do not:
Writers Expect to Suffer
People like myself who write for a living in addition to our day jobs know that while we wouldn’t do anything else, writing is painful. There is a price that must be paid. You pay that price in the currency of boredom, isolation and self-doubt. Many “speakers” fear suffering. They’ve heard the applause of the crowd too many times.
Writers Discipline Themselves
As a writer, no-one is holding a gun over your head and making you do what you do. You create your own self-appointed structure and deadlines. You create your own rhythms and routines. I was up today at 3:40 a.m. to write. No normal person would “accidentally” fall into this type of behavior.
Writers Don’t Wait for Inspiration
When I woke up today and sat down at the keyboard, I didn’t do it in response to a flash of inspiration that I was hoping to scribble down before it evaporated into thin air. I got up as a form of discipline, like a Marine. As a badge of honor. As a way of picking up my cross. I knew that if I sat down, inspiration would come. The muse does not speak to those who sleep in.
Writers Don’t Procrastinate
Writers know that what separates them from their smarter and more talented peers who talk a good game but never produce is not their natural gifting, but their ability to see the payoff and attack their craft with a vengeance. Five well-spent hours can produce something that has the potential to change the lives of thousands of people. Where else can you see that kind of impact for such little time?
Writers can picture the lives they’re changing. That’s why we write. At 3:40 a.m. Or at 11:47 p.m. Or 2:14 p.m. They show up to work and painstakingly begin cranking out one word after another while wannabe writers are ordering frappuccinos at Starbucks in between tweeting and checking Facebook.
When God called you to a lifetime of pulpit ministry, he was calling you to a lifetime of writing. Did you realize this?
That’s a problem because most preachers avoid sermon writing at all costs. The pain of it makes them wait until the last possible minute to start. If I looked at your preaching calendar/habits/videos over the last three years, what would I discover?
If you’re like most senior pastors, I know what I’d discover: a year’s worth of hastily patched together “messages” that are so far below what you’re capable of producing that it makes you wince just to watch yourself on video. I know, because I’ve been there.
The first day I begin coaching a senior pastor I always ask the same question: Looking back on your last 10 sermons, on average, what day did you finish them? Ninety-five percent of them have told me they consistently finish their sermons between Thursday and Saturday every week. Here’s another fun fact worth sharing: 100 percent of them hated life.
I want to show you a better way.
I believe you can create an approach to sermon writing that will make your sermon speaking so much more enjoyable, productive and powerful.
Finish Your Sermon by 11 a.m. Monday
I want to show you how you can finish your sermons, every single week, by Monday at 11 a.m.
Yes, you heard me right.
I promise that if you finish your sermon by 11 a.m. on Monday…
- You will instantly improve your mental and emotional well-being. (FYI: I believe inadequately dealing with the unrelenting mental pressure of sermon writing changes your psyche and is the number one cause of pastoral depression.)
- You will allow yourself to enjoy your days off on Friday and Saturday.
- You will position yourself to write exponentially better sermons in a shorter period of time.
- You will be much more enjoyable to be around in the office and at home.
Wouldn’t you agree that if I could show you how to finish your sermons by noon Monday every week that it would be worth doing?
Before I give you some advice on how to make that happen, we first have to understand why we procrastinate on sermon writing.
In 1957, British author C. Northcote Parkinson published a series of essays titled Parkinson’s Law or The Pursuit of Progress. One of the chapters in that book was devoted to what he called “comitology”—a term he coined to describe the process by which a committee could, over time, block people from working effectively to accomplish their most important tasks.
Parkinson’s observations were popularized in the adage: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
“Parkinson’s law” is a principle that few senior pastors understand.
When senior pastors give themselves an entire week to complete a sermon, they find out, miraculously, that Parkinson’s law takes over and it takes an entire week to complete that sermon. Coincidence? Not according to Parkinson.
Speaking in The 4-Hour Workweek about how business leaders can turn their understanding of Parkinson’s law into a competitive advantage, Tim Ferris writes,
“Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials.
If I give you a week to complete the same task, it’s six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. If I give you two months, God forbid, it becomes a mental monster. The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.
This presents a very curious phenomenon. There are two synergistic approaches for increasing productivity that are inversions of one another:
1.) Limit tasks to the important to shorten work time. (80/20)
2.) Shorten work time to limit tasks to the important. (Parkinson’s Law).
The best solution is to use both together: Identify the few critical tasks that contribute most to income and schedule them with very short and clear deadlines.” (1)
The Power of Tight Deadlines
Did you catch what Ferris said? “The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.”
Parkinson and Ferris may not be senior pastors, but they have certainly articulated the single most helpful sermon preparation principle you’ll hear in 2017.
The way to write more powerful sermons, and invest in your mental and emotional well-being in the process, is to give yourself an extremely short window in which to complete your message.
The reality is most senior pastors already write their sermons in an extremely short time-frame. It’s called “Saturday.”
All I’m going to do is show you how to take that mad flurry of writing activity that you already do every week and move it to first thing Monday morning.
1. Decide to Finish Your Sermon on Monday
You must first decide TODAY that you are going to be a writer of sermons and not just a speaker of sermons. In his brilliant book Turning Pro, Steven Pressfield said, “The sure sign of an amateur is he has a million plans and they all start tomorrow.” (2)
You know you’ve decided when you’ve changed your environment. You know you’ve decided when you’ve permanently cancelled standing Monday appointments and blocked off your entire day because you’re going to keep a weekly appointment with yourself. You know you’ve decided when you put your phone into airplane mode, created an office in your basement, or have taken over some remote cubicle on the third floor of a musty public library where no-one can find you.
Listen to the advice the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke gave to an aspiring young writer in Letters to a Young Poet (in fact, I would encourage you to insert the word “preach” every time you read the word “write”):
“Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.” (3)
2. Block Off Mondays From 5 a.m. to 11 a.m.
In a previous article, I talked about how I used to take Wednesday mornings to do what I call “heavy lifting” (the task of getting the sermon on paper). I changed that strategy a while ago and moved that flurry of writing to Monday mornings. I also moved the standing meeting I had on Monday afternoon with my preaching associate and combined that with my weekly service planning meeting at lunch every Tuesday.
When I did that, my life changed. Like overnight. I’ve been following this new approach since Fall of 2015. While it was upended on occasion with book writing, this process has served me well.
After deciding that you are going to approach sermon writing like a writer, you’re going to do what writers do: set a schedule.
Block off five hours on Monday morning (for me that’s 5 a.m. to 11 a.m.) and go to a place where you can’t be interrupted.
Setting Yourself Up for Success
Forget trying to “do your devotions” and then write your sermons. Your brain is not designed to move from one deep task to another in a short period of time (this is one of the barriers preachers face). On this day, your sermon writing is your devotional time.
Turn your phone on airplane mode for the duration.
You’ll need to eat a breakfast that has both a protein source (usually eggs) and a carbohydrate source (fruit) as soon as you wake up. Do not neglect this. Your brain runs on glucose. And don’t neglect the protein because it not only stabilizes your blood sugar, it satiates your hunger. My practice is to fry two eggs and two extra egg whites and eat them with a cup of blueberries. I do this first thing by 5 a.m. as I simultaneously pound down 20 oz. of water.
Your blood sugar will begin to drop around 8 a.m., so make sure you have prepared another meal to eat around that time. Carbohydrates take 60-90 minutes to metabolize in your body, but the addition of protein ensures that your blood sugar doesn’t take a downward spike (causing you to feel lightheaded). My practice is to have a handful of pecans and dates (roughly 250 calories) in a plastic bag and ready to eat around that time.
Email is off. All browser windows are closed. Social media accounts are definitely not open. I have a yellow Post-It note sitting next to me with a pen ready to jot down the random ideas that pop into my head all morning “that I must remember.” I’m ready to rock and roll.
I put my fingers on the keyboard and pray the same prayer I pray every week: “God speak to me and through me.”
Then I begin typing.
3. Block Off Tuesday or Wednesday Morning for Advanced Planning
It is at this point you have to understand that I am not coming into that Monday power session without having done some preparation.
In my article “How Senior Pastors Can Schedule Their Week For Maximum Impact,” I talked about how you need to block off Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings for advanced sermon planning.
That “advanced work” has to set you up to be able to write your entire sermon in one sitting.
But, I want to make clear, when you are writing that sermon on a Monday morning, you are actually completing the third step in your sermon writing process.
Here are the first two steps that make the third possible:
First Step in Sermon Writing
The first step is crafting your sermon series. If you signed up for my newsletter, you received an e-book I wrote called 8 Steps To Writing A Captivating Sermon Series. In that, I talked about how to create and capture sermon series ideas that flow out of your devotional study. That’s the first step.
Second Step in Sermon Writing
The second step is deciding what passage you are going to preach. From that passage, you must answer one simple question, “What is this sermon about?”
The reason most senior pastors take an entire week to write their sermon is they are dragging out the process of trying to (a) find the right passage to preach and (b) answering the question, “What is this sermon about?”
When you go into your Monday morning sermon writing session, you want to have checked off both of those steps the week before. Otherwise, there’s no possible way you’re going to find a passage, figure out what it is about and THEN write a sermon, all in five hours.
On Monday you’ll want to open a file in Microsoft Word that already has the document prepped. For me, that means the passage is already copied from Bible Gateway, I have jotted down some different ideas about how to introduce the sermon, as well as some illustrations I know I’ll want to use.
Additional Tips for Maximizing Sermon Writing
Now there are two other practices you’re going to want to implement as soon as possible.
The first is setting up an Evernote account to collect sermon illustration ideas. If you don’t collect “sermon fodder” in Evernote, you’ll end up telling personal stories for illustrations, and as much as you think this works, it doesn’t. It gets old, and boring. No matter how much we think people like laughing at our humorous, self-effacing stories, they don’t.
The second is becoming an active reader. You and I can listen to a senior pastor preach three times or less and note either the presence or absence of a rich reading life, can’t we? Let’s commit to creating quality, deep content going forward. This is why I suggest doing all your reading on a Kindle. That way you can highlight quotes, go to your Kindle Highlights page when you’re done, click your Evernote Web clipper extension on Google Chrome, and save your Kindle highlights into Evernote for future use.
4. Pick Your Writing Path
There are two broad ways people approach writing, so it should come as no surprise that there are two ways senior pastors approach the sermon-writing task.
“Write First, Edit Later”
The first way people write is in one mad dash—beginning to end. This is the way Bill Hybels says he writes his messages. I challenge you to find any pre-determined “outline” in any of the messages Hybels has written. That’s because he doesn’t know what he’s going to write until he starts writing, and they usually end up being brilliant.
“Edit as You Write”
The second way people write is by adding one building block at a time. That’s my writing style. I like to begin by picking a passage, identifying the main idea, creating an outline and then filling in the blanks with rich material. When Andy Stanley articulated his Me, We, God, You and We sermon structure, he tipped his hand that he’s an outline first kind of preacher.
In my experience, I’ve found that most (but not all) senior pastors that are extroverts on the Myers-Briggs write first, then edit later. Most introverts will create an outline, then fill in the blanks.
FYI: I would encourage you to take the Myers-Briggs test HERE. Once you get your results purchase John K. DiTiberio’s book, Writing and Personality: Finding Your Voice, Your Style, Your Way. It will give you a detailed path for maximizing your individualized writing process according to your personality temperament.
5. Structure Your Time to Write in Three Distinct 90-Minute Spurts
Regardless of how you do it, your brain is not designed to stay focused for longer than 60 to 90 minutes. It’s too taxing. Envision your five-hour writing block in three distinct segments.
How “Write First, Edit Later” Preachers Structure Their Writing Spurts
Spend your first 90 minutes in one mad dash of writing. Just write. Get your ideas on paper. Don’t worry about how they sound, whether they are grammatically correct, or if they make sense. Just write. Envision your task the way professional painters paint high-end homes: a first coat, followed by a second and finished with trim work. In this first 90-minute spurt you’re just trying to cover the wall with paint. Get it all out of your head and into your Word file.
Then get up. Walk around. Take a break for 10 minutes. Then go back for a second round.
Spend the next 90 minutes reading what you wrote, identifying the larger structure to the message, then going back and re-writing it a second time. Now you “know” what your sermon is about, what you liked and didn’t, etc. As much as you balk at the idea of rewriting what you just wrote, force yourself to do it anyway. This is your second coat of paint.
Then take a break, eat your mid-morning meal, stretch and clear your head.
Finally, sit back down and tell yourself that you have 90 minutes to bring it home. Tell yourself that what you’re writing right now is what you’re taking on the stage. Picture the people to whom you will be preaching. Feel their pain. Imagine the unspoken hurts they carry. Then go back to that second draft and edit it like Ernest Hemingway on cocaine. Attack it. Don’t hold back. This is where you’re applying the trim upon two pretty good layers of paint. This is the point where amateur painters and preachers call it a day.
How “Edit As You Write” Preachers Structure Their Writing Spurts
Spend the first 90 minutes brainstorming and then writing down all your ideas. Once you feel like you have all the “pulp” you’ll need to work with, arrange the material into an outline. Now turn your attention to the introduction. You want to try to finish crafting your outline and introduction by the end of your first 90-minute segment.
Then get up. Walk around. Take a break for 10 minutes. Then go back for a second round.
Spend the next 90 minutes starting at the beginning and writing as you go and “filling in the blanks” where needed. I have a predetermined list of sermon “pieces” that I want to include in every message: a spiritual classic quote, two to three unique insights from the biblical text, and one humorous personal story. I make sure I have those components in place as I write. I’ve found I can get through 2/3 of the message in this second round.
Now I’m ready to take my final break. I get up, stretch, eat my mid-morning meal, chug 20 oz. of water, then jump back into it.
The third writing segment is the pay-off zone for me. This is where my greatest spiritual insight comes. As I’m finishing the last 1/3 of the message I start to get emotional thinking about the person listening to my message. I’m thinking about their pain, what they’re thinking as they’re listening and what God wants to do in their life.
Regardless of which path you follow you’re always going to spend the last 90-minute segment engulfed in empathy for the person listening to your message. This will cause you to finish with fire. This will keep your butt in the seat. This will cause you to go back and rewrite the sections that need clarity. This is that last 10 percent where amateurs “settle” for “good enough” and then get up to preach. What separates you from the amateurs is that extra 10 percent you’re going to go after in this last segment.
6. Do a Quick Re-Read, Then Stick a Fork In It
Once I’m done, I take 15-20 minutes and re-read my entire message. I clean it up, make grammatical corrections, then stick a fork in it.
When you get to this point you will feel exhausted and amazed at the same time.
Your sermon is done, it is good, and it is only 11:17 a.m. on a Monday!
You have kicked procrastination in the teeth and the rest of your week is yours.
Very well done my friend.
7. Pass Along Your Message to Your Sermon Editor
At this point, you’re not entirely done with it yet, but you’re 99 percent of the way there.
Your next step is to send the sermon to someone you trust—a volunteer or staff member—who will read the message and “clean it up.”
I suggest that you make the person who preaches in your absence this “sermon editor.” Give them the manuscript and ask them to take 20 minutes to read, add words, underline, bold and clarify different words and phrases.
Every preacher needs a sermon editor to (a) keep you from saying stupid stuff and (b) clarify things that aren’t clear in the first draft.
8. Let the Sermon Lie Dormant on Tuesday and Wednesday
The real “magic” of sermon writing happens after it is written and you forget about it. This is when your mind and soul wrestle with the material subconsciously and rewrite/add to it without even thinking about it. This crucial piece of the sermon-writing process is missed when you finish sermons on a Saturday. Ever wrote a message and then afterward had a brilliant idea that would have made it so much better? That’s what happens when you skip this vitally important stage. When you see a dairy cow in the field doing nothing, that “nothing” is their most important work. So it is with preachers.
9. Pick It Up Again on Thursday for a Final Clean Up
Once you email the message to your sermon editor, you don’t touch it until Thursday morning when you take it out to clean it up a second time.
Remember, you could get up and preach this sermon on Monday at 11 a.m. if you had to. It’s that good. The editor simply makes it better, and your time on Thursday is when you take it from an A to an A+++ effort.
Why Thursday? Because it’s the last day you can work on it before you take two full days off on Friday and Saturday.
This is also the time I mark the sermon for slides (I highlight the words and phrases I want to be turned into slides in yellow block for ProPresenter) and locate the pictures I want to accompany them.
10. Let the Sermon Lie Dormant Again on Friday and Saturday
Do not allow yourself to touch that sermon on your days off.
Or you will die.
Or baby seals will be slaughtered.
Or David Crowder will shave his beard.
Terrible, terrible things will happen if you touch that sermon, so don’t do it.
11. Re-Read the Sermon Three Times on Sunday Morning
The third and final time I pick up my sermon before I preach is 6:30 a.m. on Sunday morning when I re-read it three times in a row.
I don’t rehearse out loud. If I found that helpful, I would. If you do, then make that part of your practice.
What Are You Waiting For?
Finishing our sermons early every week is about more than trying to feel better emotionally, though that’s important. It’s not even about trying to produce better sermon content.
It is about allowing ourselves unhurried time before the Lord after our message is completed to acquire what the great 20th-century revivalist Leonard Ravenhill called “unction.”
In his classic book Why Revival Tarries, Ravenhill writes,
“The word does not live unless the unction is upon the preacher. Preacher, with all thy getting—get unction. Victory is not won in the pulpit by firing intellectual bullets or wisecracks, but in the prayer closet; it is won or lost before the preacher’s foot enters the pulpit. Unction is like dynamite. Unction comes not by the medium of the bishop’s hands, neither does it mildew when the preacher is cast into prison. Unction will pierce and percolate; it will sweeten and soften. When the hammer of logic and the fire of human zeal fail to open the stony heart, unction will succeed.”
Friends, we all need the fire in the belly and the tranquility of soul that an intentional and disciplined sermon writing process can bring to our ministries and life.
So what are you waiting for?
Do the work.
Feel the freedom that comes from enjoying writing your sermons as much as preaching them.
Rest knowing that you’ve given God and your people your absolute best effort.
Then walk into the pulpit with the fire of heaven in your heart.
- Tim Ferris, The 4-Hour Workweek (New York: Crown Publishers, 2007), 75.
- Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro (Seattle: Amazon, 2011), Kindle location 484.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1934), 18-19.
- Leonard Ravenhill, Why Revival Tarries (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1959), 20.
This article originally appeared here.